Do revolutions always fail?
Written for Socialist Review, April 2014.
The state of the world – with floods, climate change, austerity, unemployment, poverty, wars, racism and much else – is such that it is not easy for our rulers to persuade people that everything is alright.
But, of course they don’t need to. All they really need to do, to sleep soundly in their beds at night, is persuade most people that there is nothing they can do about it. This is why when it comes to justifying capitalism, inequality and war, the mantra of ‘But you can’t change human nature’ has always been so popular with the powerful and so drummed into the heads of ordinary people.
Closely linked to the human nature argument is the idea that revolutions always end in failure and they are tied together by the conviction that revolutions must fail because ordinary people are inherently incapable of running society. Real popular power is always going to be an illusion.
Thus, although George Orwell was a left-wing socialist, his book Animal Farm has always been immensely popular with the establishment and put on endless GCSE syllabuses, because it suggests that the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into Stalininist dictatorship was inevitable owing to the lack of intelligence of the horse, Boxer, and other ordinary animals who represent the working class.
Every time an actual revolution is defeated or distorted this argument appears to be strengthened and there is seldom a shortage of doom merchants ready to put it forward. The current situation, with the very difficult circumstances that have developed in Egypt and the clearly right-wing nature of the forces driving the overthrow of the Yanukovich regime in Ukraine, lends itself to this kind of thinking. Thus Simon Jenkins in The Guardian argued ‘Maidan, Ukraine …Tahrir, Egypt … the square symbolises failure not hope.’ [The Guardian, 26.2.2014].
We shall return to the specific arguments of Simon Jenkins later, but first let’s consider the general claim that revolutions always fail.
The historical experience
Obviously it is very easy to produce a list of attempted revolutions and uprisings that failed – the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, the Peasant War in Germany of 1925, the Paris Commune in 1871, the Spanish Revolution of 1936 and so on. However, as a historical generalisation the idea that ALL revolutions fail is quite false.
For a start, many of today’s main democratic capitalist regimes are the product of successful revolutions in the past. The most obvious examples are the Dutch Revolt against the Spanish Habsburg Empire in the 16th century which established the Dutch Republic in the early 17th century and laid the foundations for the Netherlands; the English Revolution of 1642-49 which overthrew Charles I, broke the power of absolute monarchy and the feudal aristocracy and opened the door to parliamentary democracy and the development of capitalism in Britain; the French Revolution of 1789-94, which removed the head of Louis XVI , broke the power of the French aristocracy and ended feudalism in France; the American Revolution of 1775, which established American independence and paved the way for the development of the United States as the world’s leading capitalist nation.
The contemporary bourgeoisie, the capitalist classes who dominate society today and are now a thoroughly reactionary force in the world, are embarrassed about their revolutionary origins and try as much as possible, with the aim of tame historians, to conceal them. Thus the Dutch Revolution becomes just the ‘Dutch Revolt’or the 80 Years War and gets very much written out of mainstream history. The English Revolution becomes the English Civil War and not a revolution at all. Moreover, the conservative English bourgeoisie more or less openly sympathises with the ‘gay cavaliers’ of Charles I against the grim ‘puritans’ of Oliver Cromwell who in fact laid the basis for their rule. Similarly the tendency of historians, especially British historians, has been to denigrate the great French Revolution and depict it as descending into an orgy of uncontrolled violence, with the guillotine and ‘the Terror’ of 1793-4.
But none of these efforts at historical revisionism and mystification can conceal the fact that these were real revolutions involving the mobilisation of large masses of ordinary people from below, the forcible overthrow of the existing regime and, crucially, the transfer of state power from one social class (the feudal aristocracy) to another (the bourgeoisie) in such a way to lead to the creation of a whole new social and economic order.
Moreover, all of these revolutions were, in their own terms – they were bourgeois/ capitalist revolutions not working class socialist revolutions - spectacularly successful. The Dutch Revolution made the Dutch Republic, for about 60 years (1600-1660), the most successful economy in Europe and the world. It also made the Dutch Republic outstandingly democratic, liberal and progressive by the standards of the day – a haven for rebels, thinkers and artists such as the Leveller, John Lilburne, the philosophers Descartes and Spinoza and the painter Rembrandt.
In England the Stuart Monarchy was restored with Charles II in 1660 but this doesn’t change the fact that he came back on quite different terms from those his father tried to maintain. Parliament had decisively defeated the king and never again was Britain ruled by an absolute monarchy. The consolidation of parliamentary, and bourgeois, rule was easily achieved in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1689 and Britain became the country of the Industrial Revolution and the ‘workshop of the world’, i.e. the dominant capitalist power in the 19th century.
The French Revolution not only turned France into a modern capitalist country and made Paris the political and cultural ‘capital of the 19th century’ but, more than any other event, gave rise to modern democracy and modern political philosophy with its concepts of liberty and human rights and then socialism.
In addition to these and other successful bourgeois revolutions (the Meiji Revolution in Japan in 1868, the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 and so on) the 20th century saw a multitude of national revolutions which destroyed colonial rule and established national independence. These range from the Irish Revolution which began with the Easter Rising of 1916 and culminated in 1920-21, to the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, the Chinese Revolution of 1949, the Cuban Revolution of 1959, the Algerian Revolution against the French in 1954-62, the revolutions against Portuguese rule in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique and many others.
So how is it, after this abundant historical experience of successful revolution, that the claim that revolution always fails has the resonance it does? The answer to this question is that none of these revolutions have yet produced a society of equality and freedom as almost all of them claimed they would.
Bourgeois Revolutions and Workers’ Revolutions
To deal with this issue we need to be clear about the difference between the bourgeois revolutions of the past and the workers revolution we are talking about today. The Dutch, English, American and French Revolutions were both progressive and successful but they could not introduce economic equality or a classless society. They adopted a rhetoric of ‘equal rights’ to mobilize popular support but in reality were led by, and transferred state power to, a class – the bourgeoisie or capitalists – which was by its nature an exploiting class and which could not exist without a working class beneath it. They therefore could go beyond achieving formal, constitutional democracy with, at very best, equal legal rights for all [in practice, of course, they generally didn’t even achieve that].
The same applies to the various anti-colonial and nationalist revolutions discussed above. For historical reasons these revolutions often adopted an even more radical language than the great bourgeois revolutions, frequently calling themselves communist or Marxist – the Chinese and the Cuban Revolutions being the most important examples. But in so far as, in reality as opposed to words, these revolutions remained under middle class not working class leadership and transferred state power to this middle class, they could do no more than establish independent state capitalist societies which would not only be class divided societies but would also be subject to all the distorting pressures of the capitalist world market.
Here a word needs to be said about the peasantry. Ever since the development from hunting and gathering to agriculture 5000 or more years ago the large majority of the world’s population have been peasants. Inevitably, therefore, many and, in some cases, most of ‘the people’ participating in revolutions have been peasants. For example this was the case with Pancho Villa’s and Emiliano Zapata’s revolutionary armies in the Mexican Revolution, with Mao’s Red Army in the Chinese Revolution or Fidel Castro’s guerrilla band in Cuba.
But there is a huge difficulty with the peasantry as a revolutionary force: they can fight heroically and ferociously against the old order, against the landlords and the colonialists but they cannot take control of the new society that emerges if the revolution succeeds. This is nothing to do with lack of ability or intelligence and everything to do with their conditions of life. Power in any society depends, ultimately, on control of the forces of production and in modern society the decisive forces of production are located in cities. Peasants, by definition, are based in the countryside. After taking part in any revolution or revolutionary army, even though it may march on and conquer the cities, the peasants eventually have to return home to the countryside leaving someone else to run the cities and therefore the society. This someone else invariably turns out to be a new ruling class (even if they call themselves Marxist or ‘communist’).
The working class or proletariat, those who live by the sale of their labour power, are different. Unlike peasants they are concentrated in large work places – whether its factories or call centres, shipyards or council offices – and large towns, where the real power in society is located. As capitalism has spread round the globe so the working class has dramatically increased in size to where it makes up a majority of world’s populations and giant cities like Sao Paolo, Lagos, Cairo, Mumbai, Shanghai and Seoul are found on every continent and all modern production depends on their labour. Without the working class not a car or computer is assembled, not a shop or supermarket is staffed, not an office or school opens and no bus, train or plane moves.
This gives the working class immense potential power – power not only to defeat capitalism but also to construct and rule the society that comes after and to do so democratically. The working class is the first oppressed class in history that has the ability to run society without exploiting or oppressing others.
But can the working class maintain democratic control over its own leaders – won’t a new set of privileged oppressors inevitably rise from its ranks to take over? Posing this question raises the issue of human nature mentioned at the start of this article and also brings up the fate of the Russian Revolution and its transformation into Stalinist dictatorship.
Why did the Russian Revolution fail?
For reasons of space I will deal very briefly with the human nature question. It is commonly said that human nature, being greedy and self interested, makes real equality impossible. But this is false because human nature is not fixed; it changes and develops as circumstances change and develop and we know from the fact that hunters and gatherers lived in democratic and egalitarian societies for many tens of thousands of years before classes emerged that there is not some innate obstacle to equality lodged in human nature.
Regarding the Russian Revolution it is necessary to recognise that its degeneration into tyranny is one of the main reasons why many people think revolutions are destined to fail. It was after all the greatest revolution of the 20th century and the only one in which the working class succeeded in taking power and beginning the process of building socialism. It is inevitably seen as a test case.
However the material conditions in which the Russian Revolution found itself in the years following 1917 were so grievous that its degeneration was almost inevitable and this was indeed analysed and predicted by Lenin and Trotsky and other Marxists at the time. Let us briefly remind ourselves of those conditions.
1. Before the revolution Russia was the most economically backward major power in Europe. The overwhelming majority of its population were peasants, with the working class making up less than 10%.
2. The Russian economy was further damaged by the First World War and then utterly devastated by the Civil War of 1918-21 that was imposed on Russia by foreign imperialist intervention, By 1921 industrial production had fallen to only 31% of its 1913 level and large scale production to only 21%. This economic collapse was compounded by large scale famine, typhus and cholera.
3. The social effect of this was to destroy the urban working class who had made the revolution and established workers’ power in 1917. The total of industrial workers in Russia fell from about 3 million in 1917 to only 1.25 million in 1921. The working class had, as Lenin put it at the time, ‘become declassed, i.e. dislodged from its class groove and ceased to exist as a proletariat’. Physically and politically exhausted it lost the ability to control its own government and the officials of its own state.
In these circumstances it was unavoidable that the officials of the state and the party, sincere Marxists and Communists or not, would develop into an unaccountable and privileged bureaucracy and that their consciousness would change accordingly. The dictatorship of (or by) the proletariat that Marx and Lenin had envisaged would become, and did become, a dictatorship over the proletariat.
Was there any way out of this impasse? Yes, but only if the workers revolution could be spread to other more economically developed countries such as Germany, Italy, France etc. which would have taken the pressure off the besieged revolution and have enabled aid to be sent to the enfeebled Russian workers. This very nearly happened: the revolution did spread to Germany and Italy (as well as elsewhere) and it came very close to being victorious but its defeat in these countries, mainly for lack of revolutionary leadership, left the Russian Revolution isolated and sealed its fate.
However once we grasp the material conditions that caused the failure of the Russian Revolution it is clear that these send a message of hope, not despair, for revolution today as there is now no major country, not China or India or Brazil or Argentina, where the productive forces are not more developed and the working class is not far stronger than it was in Russia in 1917. What is more the world is far more globalised and internationally integrated than it was at that time, so once a breakthrough is made in one country spreading the revolution internationally will be much easier than it was in 1917 -23.
The Failure of the Squares?
Having answered the general historical argument against revolution we can return to the specific argument about the failure of the squares [Tiananmen, Tahrir, Puerto del Sol, Taksim, Maidan etc] to produce new and better societies – which is put by Simon Jenkins and others. Jenkins says that crowds in squares have become ‘icons of modern revolutionary politics’ and recognises their inspirational power but he claims that ‘crowds destroy but seldom build’.
‘A crowd can blow the fuse of a weakened regime and plunge the state into darkness. It seldom turns on the light of democracy. Any upheaval can offer the hope of better times. But history is always a sceptic.’
But this is journalistic rhetoric not serious analysis. Jenkins makes two basic mistakes. First he treats all crowds in squares as the same phenomenon, rather than looking at the class composition, political aims and dominant ideology. Thus he doesn’t even attempt to distinguish between a middle class crowd and a working class crowd, a reactionary crowd and a radical crowd and so on. This is particularly crass where the main crowd in question at the time of his writing , that in Maidan in the Ukraine clearly has a completely different, much more right wing and to some extent fascist, character than the crowds of Tahrir or Puerto del Sol in 2011.
Second, because crowds in certain squares have come to symbolise certain revolutionary movements he identifies the crowd in the square with the revolution as a whole, failing even to consider its other elements or the wider social forces involved in it. It is like were reducing the whole Great French Revolution to the storming of the Bastille or the Russian Revolution to the march on the Winter Palace.
This is wrong in relation to all the recent upheavals but especially so in the case of the Egyptian Revolution because although the media focussed almost exclusively on Tahrir the fact is there were major struggles and mobilizations across the country, particularly in Alexandria and Suez, and because it was the combination of the masses on the streets with rapidly spreading strikes and workplace occupations that was decisive in forcing the fall of Mubarak.
Consequently Jenkins, and others who would write of revolutions as doomed to fail, are drawing completely the wrong conclusion from the struggles of recent years. While it is true that a movement that does not go beyond simply occupying public spaces is unlikely to succeed, it is quite false to imagine that such mass mobilizations cannot go beyond such limitations.
Indeed the correct conclusion is that mass mobilization on the streets is an absolutely necessary first step in any revolutionary process but in addition we need mass strikes and occupations of work places, because it at the point of production that capital is most vulnerable and working class power is concentrated. And in addition to that we need revolutionary socialist political leadership, because without revolutionary politics any mass movement can be misled, misdirected and betrayed.
However if these three necessary elements can be brought together the potential of the global working class to defeat capitalism and build an international socialist society is now greater than it has ever been in history.